Eye on the Courts: Conviction Integrity – An Idea Whose Time Has Come

witness-idAs we celebrate the 50th Anniversary of the landmark Supreme Court Decision Gideon v. Wainwright, many will lament the demise of indigent defense – the many in the system who lack access to good and effective counsel, and the many who are represented by defense attorneys with indefensibly large caseloads as counties are forced to cut their budgets in the times of economic downturn, where indigent defense ranks below many other priorities.

The biggest outcome from these cuts in indigent defense is the rise of wrongful convictions – which are one of the most devastating occurrences in our legal system, for not only does it put the innocent behind  bars but it allows the guilty to go free and, in many cases, to kill or injure or terrorize again.

While Maurice Caldwell, who spoke at the Vanguard‘s 2011 event on Wrongful Convictions, was being incarcerated for a crime he did not commit, the actual perpetrator killed someone else.  The system not only wronged Mr. Caldwell but wronged an innocent victim who lost his life.

But all hope is not lost.  Thanks to organizations like the Innocence Project, we are starting to learn about wrongful convictions.  We are only now scratching the surface and any estimate on the number of those convicted of crimes that they did not commit is likely to be far too low.

However, because of these efforts we are starting to learn why wrongful convictions occur, how they happen, and what mistakes we might be able avoid to prevent future occurrences.

It is here that work like that of Santa Clara County District Attorney Jeff Rosen and his deputy David Angel becomes critical.

Too often in our adversarial legal system the notion of justice, for a district attorney’s office, is measured in convictions, whereas the true measure should be whether justice is served – convicting the guilty and letting the innocent go free.

Northern California Innocence Project Executive Director Cookie Ridolfi has been fighting this fight for a long time.

“We’re never going to change the system until the people within it change,” she recently told the Vanguard in a phone interview.  “What I have tried to do in my work is reach out and work with prosecutors, work with the California State Bar and together identify the problems.  Where we disagree, I make every effort to talk, explain it, and prove it, research it, and with that information it gives us the opportunity to gather information and push for meaningful reform.”

“I’ve been around a long time and I know that change takes a very long time,” she said.  “I don’t expect it to happen overnight but I have seen change that I’m encouraged by.”

While other counties have had the  concept of conviction integrity, what Santa Clara County did was innovative – they put conviction integrity at the table with all of their other departments.

As David Angel explained, “Conviction Integrity is going to have implications on many decisions that come from the DA and you always want the Convictions Integrity Unit to be at that table.”

The Santa Clara County DA’s office is still a prosecutor first.  They are not the Innocence Project.

“We stand by all of our convictions, but if somebody has a concern about one, we’re going to allow them to investigate it,” David Angel told the Vanguard.

“For us, the person has already been convicted by a jury, by a judge, it’s under appeal,” he said.  “We’re looking to see if there’s an allegation that there’s new evidence and if there’s new evidence that hasn’t been presented before, it’s our job to investigate that, to follow it wherever it can go and then make a review to see if the new evidence makes a difference.”

That is all you can ask, particularly when so many times, when there truly is new evidence, prosecutors defend their conviction at all costs.  They fight the testing of DNA.  They fight the introduction of new evidence.

You want a prosecutor that is going to stand by the quality of their work and fight to protect their convictions, while at the same time acknowledging that sometimes new evidence will emerge, sometimes mistakes will be made.

The biggest part of the Santa Clara program, however, is not their evaluation of past cases, but rather the prevention of future cases.  Prevention means that the innocent do not spend decades in prison and it also means that the guilty do not go free.

“What can we do to reduce the risk of this happening in the future?” David Angel asked.  “We know not just from the wrongful convictions in our county, but much more importantly from the large body of data that we now have nationwide, there are common causes, there are lessons that can be learned.”

Mr. Angel said that their office is attempting to learn from these lessons, to be able to avoid wrongful convictions in the future.  As these lessons lead to common sense reasonable reform, they hope to embrace that reform.

The key, according to Mr. Angel, is taking the issues outside of the heat of current litigation where they can be more objective about how to use best practices.

When we asked Cookie Ridolphi if she believes that we should implement a similar program across the state, she had a warning which was that the DAs have to be sincere in their efforts, and she noted cases where they were not and the convictions integrity unit existed in name only.

We believe that a conviction integrity unit is an idea whose time has come in Yolo County.  We urge the DA’s office to take seriously the charge of justice, and not equate justice with the number or percentage of convictions.

The willingness to evaluate past cases in light of new evidence would greatly improve justice in Yolo County, and the idea of moving forward with evidence-based best practices seems like a no-brainer.

The most amazing thing that David Angel told us in our interview was, “Just because something meets the constitutionally minimal threshold doesn’t mean that’s the best way to do it.  So if we can find a better way to do it, let’s do that going forward.”

That is a concept that I think we can all get behind.

“We really believe and have a track record to show, that if you implement these reforms at the front-end, it strengthens the convictions as well as avoids the bad convictions,” he said.  “In other words, it increases the strength of everything you do.”

And that is the bottom line – implementing these reforms only strengthens your department and ensures that justice is carried out.

—David M. Greenwald reporting

About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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1 Comment

  1. Fight Against Injustice

    I agree that we should encourage a conviction integrity unit in Yolo County, but I also share the concerns that Cookie Ridolphi voiced about places where a conviction integrity unit is in name only.

    David, do you know the make up of David Angel’s conviction integrity unit? Is there an overseeing body? How does David Angel assess its reliability?

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